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‘Every step’: A rabbi and his family run the New York City Marathon to help those with spinal cord injuries

The family patriarch, who couldn’t walk because of a spinal cord injury, has inspired two generations to raise money for a cure

The rabbi and his family of five will run the New York City Marathon in hopes that others may walk.

Rabbi Yoshi Zweiback, a Reform rabbi at one of Los Angeles’ largest synagogues — Stephen Wise Temple — and his wife and three daughters will gather at the starting line of the 51st running of the race Sunday to raise money for spinal cord research.

They call themselves Team Handsome Hank, for the Zweiback’s father-in-law, Henry Hantgan, who in 2001 suffered an injury that required him to use a wheelchair. 

Zweiback and his wife, Jacqueline Hantgan, ran the 26.2-mile race in 1997. In 2020, they had planned to run it a second time in Handsome Hank’s honor, but the race was scrapped due to the outbreak of COVID-19. Then Hank Hantgan died, just months before the 2021 marathon. For that race, Naomi Zweiback, now 19, decided to join her parents.

In the days before this month’s marathon, Hantagan recalled running across the 59th Street Bridge during her last marathon, near where Handsome Hank used to live.

“Every step is for my dad,” she said. “But also for all these people living with injury and pain and suffering and how we can help to make a difference.”

Team Handsome Hank this year has so far raised $31,224 for the Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation, which supports research into treatments for spinal injuries. It’s named for the actor who played Superman and suffered a spinal cord injury when he fell from a horse. 

The family will be running in honor of Jacqueline’s father, Henry Hantgan, who suffered a spinal injury that left him requiring a wheelchair. Photo by Yoshi Zweiback

The team grows

This year two other daughters — Ariela, 21, and Isa, 23 — joined Team Handsome Hank. To the family’s knowledge, they will be the largest family running together in the 2022 marathon. (According to the Guiness Book of World Records, they’re quite a ways away from being the largest family to ever complete a marathon together. That honor belongs to Ireland’s Hughes family, 30 members of which competed in the 2014 Dublin Marathon.) 

To prepare for the race, the family started their training in July while on a trip to Israel. The hot, humid conditions of their initial runs is a far cry from the brisk and overcast conditions forecast for Sunday’s marathon. The situation was “not ideal,” Zweiback recalled. 

Ariela is blunter.

“It was insane,” she said. They landed in Israel at 4:30 a.m. and her mother suggested a family run. “And I was like, ‘What is this woman trying to do? I just got off like a 14 hour plane.’ But that’s the type of person she is. So the next thing I knew, we were running down Tel Aviv streets for like two or three miles. I just remember being so miserably hot.”

That was just the start of an 18-week training program that saw each member of the family gradually increase the length of their runs. Naomi and Isa would run together in New York City, where they’re both students, while the parents got in their miles near their LA home. In the middle was Ariela, a student at the University of Wisconsin, who recruited some friends to run with her and help her stay motivated. 

Rabbis who run

Zweiback, 53, grew up watching his father run marathons. The elder Zweiback would post enviable times, with a personal best of just under three hours. His son’s times hover around a more modest five hours, similar to Ariela’s, while his wife, 52, and eldest daughter outpace him. Naomi tends to bring up the rear.

Zweiback said they’re not trying to beat each other. He quoted his father: “The fun thing about a race like this is there’s 50,000 people and other than the top couple of hundreds of competitors, no one’s racing against one another.”

The months of training has brought the already close family closer, said Zweiback. 

“Every week, when someone goes out for a run, we’ve got a little family group chat and they’ll post their stats, how far they went and what their pace was. Immediately everyone says ‘Great job, go team,’” he said.

Zweiback is far from the only running rabbi. Many have sweated their way through the New York Marathon. One motivational speaker promotes himself as The Marathon Rabbi. And when terrorists attacked the Boston Marathon, a rabbi had just crossed the finish line.

But most influential to Zweiback is Rabbi David Saperstein, the former U.S. ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom. During his tenure heading up the Union for Reform Judaism’s Religious Action Center, Saperstein would regularly organize 5Ks in Washington, D.C., and Zweiback would take part.

Zweiback said he has also made a habit of running with rabbi colleagues when they meet up at events hosted by the Central Conference for American Rabbis and other professional groups.

There is something “deeply Jewish” about putting one foot in front of the other, over and over and over, Zweiback said. On a recent weekend, the rabbi and his wife headed out to Manhattan Beach and, looking out onto the Pacific Ocean, saw a pod of dolphins playing in the surf. He imagined a different crowd of onlookers on Sunday — tens of thousands of New Yorkers cheering him and his family on. 

Running for a cause elevates the race, he said. The last two times he has run because Handsome Hank couldn’t, he thought of how much the family had prayed that he would walk again, for a cure that never came.

This year, “our hope is that we can do it for others,” he said. 

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